Updated: Jan 13
We have decided to kick-off our Women's Top 25 with the Utah Utes: a team that is coming back with another year of experience under their belt along with a returning star. The majority of their roster is made up of sophomores who had an impact last year and will look to better the program as they attempt to secure a bid to Terre Haute.
Six of Utah’s seven varsity runners from last year's regional meet are back this season, led by senior veteran Sarah Feeny who had a very strong year on the track. However, what makes this team uniquely special is the return of low-stick Poppy Tank who re-enters the lineup after redshirting the 2018 cross country season. With a handful of stellar incoming freshmen joining the program, it's hard to ignore Utah's potential this fall.
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Utah started their 2018 cross country season with two meets, one north of Salt Lake City in Logan, Utah and the other in Twin Falls, Idaho. Against Utah State in Logan, the Utes placed 2nd and had a 53 second spread through their five scorers. However, more importantly, they had an eight second spread between their #3 and #5. In Idaho at the CSI Invite, the Utes won the meet and were paced by Scarlet Dale’s runner-up finish and their 30 second spread.
However, the real action would start in Boston. At the Coast-to-Coast Battle in Beantown, Utah shocked major teams by placing 3rd overall. This finish gave the Utes some solid Kolas Points to start the season when they took down formidable opponents such as Minnesota, Virginia, and Syracuse. Dale led the team once again with a strong 14th place finish while Feeny was close behind in 20th. The rest of their lineup wasn't able to maintain that same time spread from their early-season rust-busters, but they did post finishes of 32nd (Woolnaugh), 44th (Ryan), 51st (Newton), 52nd (Powell), and 58th (Argyle). These weren't particularly exciting finishes, but it showed that Utah had great depth and could rely on anyone in the backend of their varsity crew.
In between Beantown and PAC-12’s, the Utes would go on to compete in a Penn State meet that gave the underclassmen exposure to some of the country's best programs. However, the high-level invite also got the best of an inexperienced team. At the Penn State National Open, that once reliable depth faltered and the low-sticks couldn't bring in enough scoring potency to keep things competitive. Utah eventually dropped to 10th place overall.
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A 7th place finish at PAC-12’s began the championship season for Utah. Feeny crossed the line first for the Utes in 21st, but the real story was Bella Williams jumping up to the #2 spot for the team. Williams had only raced once prior to PAC-12’s, but showed promise after placing 35th overall. And, once again, the final three scorers had a great nine second spread.
Still, at the end of the day, the inexperience against powerhouse programs and need for additional development was what truly held this team back. That was also evident in their final meet of the season...
In my opinion, one of the toughest cross country regional meets in D1 is the Mountain Region. Competing against the likes of BYU, Colorado, and New Mexico (among others) is not an easy task, but Utah stuck their nose in it and finished 11th last fall. Dale was a DNF, which hurt their overall placing significantly, but the underclassmen stepped up. Woolnough and Williams joined Feeny upfront and Sophie Ryan contributed to a small #3 to #5 spread once more. It was far from perfect, and there clear areas that needed improvement, but not having Dale finish the race was a major blow to a team that could have placed much higher.
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However, despite the inconsistencies and occasional struggles, all signs are pointing up for Utah in 2019. Their extremely young and inexperienced core will have extremely valuable race experience under their belts. That includes low-stick Scarlet Dale who was a true freshman last year.
But what's even more exciting is that 10k standout Poppy Tank will reappear in a Utah singlet. The long distance veteran will be back to use the second half of her eligibility and is expected to be one of the clear leaders of this squad over the next few months after running 34:08 for 10,000 meters this past spring. Pairing Tank with 15:41 5k runner Sarah Feeny suddenly makes the ladies from Salt Lake City extremely dangerous.
The incoming freshmen will also hope to join the travel squad this season, a scenario that is very possible given their talent and accolades. Karli Branch owns a 3200 PR of 11:08 and was a Utah cross country state champion. Soon-to-be teammate Grace Burnett was runner-up at the Utah State XC Championship. And Ellie Lundgreen? She was another Utah cross country state champion. At least one of these young Utes may have the ability to compete for a lineup and thrive under Coach Kepler. That is, after all, what happened last year.
Don't get me wrong, there are still improvements that need to be made. This group as a whole needs to be better in big races against elite competition and they need to show a bit more consistency. Still, they have all of the pieces to be majorly successful.
If Utah can replicate these short time spreads and have their younger runners make the expected leaps in fitness, then their 2019 cross country season will be one for the books.
Don't sleep of the Lady Utes this fall. They will be far stronger than many realize.